Below Dreams follows the narratives of three very different people—Elliott, newly arrived from New York, single mother Leann, and unemployed father Jamaine—as they negotiate New Orleans’ streets, neighborhoods, and residents in search of an upward path to fulfill their dreams. But as each character experiences the city’s (and life’s) realities, it becomes clear these hopes and dreams are no longer possible, and that with change must also come sacrifice.
Garrett has created something that transcends the screen, giving a voice to a generation that too often has been misunderstood or simply ignored.
Tell us a little about your film Below Dreams and what inspired you to make it.
Around 2010, I started taking greyhound buses from New York to New Orleans without any real conscious goal. I ended up building these relationships with people in my travels who were also my age, going somewhere with a vague sense of direction and a series of roadblocks or heavy consideration over their head. I had with me a still camera and a tape recorder. I asked, “Where are you going? What do you want? How do you plan on getting what you want? What’s stopping you?” I kept all this material in my back pocket and waited for a reason to start working on it. That same year, The New York Times came out with an article entitled “What is with these 20 somethings?” The article proposed that the central conflict affecting my generation was over-education and under-employment. But the interviews I had conducted with people who were a part of this demographic didn’t fit into this picture at all, and so it seemed obvious to me that if the conversation is being had, it could and should be contributed to.
You describe the style of this film as “impressionistic.” Was that a conscious choice or was that simply the style that best suited this particular project?
Well it was both. When you’re taking pictures or working with moving images, the weight is very heavy in how one chooses to deal with movement. I’d like to make work where the viewer or the audience actually feels that there is little distinction between their own eyes and the camera. So when we move from one thing to the next, there is emotional intention behind the imagery getting us there. In other words, when I get on my bike and spend the day riding through the city, there are maybe hundreds of “corner of the eye” moments–moments that are meaningful, that have weight, that speak to a human condition. So I see that moment–it makes an impression on me in my mind–and then I keep biking and soon another moment occurs. The film is very much like this cycle although with the luxury of being able to stay in the moments long enough that we can learn something–that we can start to understand and connect with who we see as strangers. And maybe in that moment from point A to point B we start to see how they are all connected.
You’ve mentioned that you utilized Craigslist as a means to gather your subjects for the film. Tell us about that experience.
When I got to New Orleans I tried to do it the legit way. I called casting agents and no one was interested. I think at the time they were shooting Benjamin Button, so I was kind of up against that I guess. I could tell that I wasn’t going to get very far. I knew I wasn’t going to change the script to make it more appealing to the top casting agents in town. I wasn’t interested in working that way. So Craigslist and working with non-professional actors, people who had never been on screen before, wasn’t a concept that was driving the process. This came about out of necessity and ended up being far more fulfilling in this case because it allowed me to also do better research. I sat at Hey! Cafe from about 9AM to 5PM almost everyday for a month or two and people would just roll in and out. We’d sit there and talk, and I’d take notes. I also put casting flyers up near womens clinics (in hopes of finding Leann), in federal buildings (in seeking Jamain) and college campuses (for Elliott). And it’s funny, because I’m doing the same outreach process now in promoting the screening of the film.
You have said “a college graduate, a single mother, and a convicted felon all have something to say with equal validity.” That is an idea that much of society would not have us take seriously. Why do you think that is? And what inspired you to want to change that?
Well I think pop and mainstream culture have a tendency to focus on the [true] minority, the elite. Don’t get me wrong, that’s important, too. We’re all interested in secrets, in the unattainable, in escaping. There’s a valuable place for these things, so it isn’t a competition. I simply felt, as a filmmaker, with this specific project, I wanted to contribute, to juxtapose, to balance.
You said you wanted to hear the voice of those who had been removed from the conversation. In making this film, do you believe some of those voices will be heard?
There are always the questions once the work has been made: Is it effective? Is it speaking to people? Does it propose something bigger than it’s immediate self? A lot of that has to do with how space is used and filled. When you make a film about three distinct people, the hope is that the same distinct communities can come together and find themselves in the real world, in the same room, at the theater. In that sharing of space, an awareness can be had. So I suppose we’ll see!
What do you hope people take away from your film?
To change the way we see everyday things and the questions we ask ourselves in the privacy of our own minds–questions such as: What are those black men sitting on a porch in central city doing? How does that woman standing on the street corner with four kids feel about her life? These are questions which come loaded with generalizations and assumptions. My hope is that in listening and truly observing without judgement, we can re-learn how to humanize one another–how to create equality in our perceptions of those around us. I’d also hope people can just sit back and become immersed in the formal qualities of the film–in what I hope is just beautiful imagery.
Do you find that making this film has changed your own perspective? (On life, on our generation, on how we relate to the rest of society).
I would say reaffirmed. I think people want to connect with one another. They want to feel accepted and validated and there’s a great deal of power in taking the initiative to reach out to people with whom you may not have a history and begin a conversation. I think nine times out of ten, that scenario will be met with open arms. Making the film validated that belief.
Were you surprised by anything you learned or experienced throughout your journey of making this film?
On the 7th or 8th day, (we shot 16 days) we were shooting the last scene of the film with Leann which was to be with a man–a knight in shining armor of sorts. But the actor didn’t show up. He didn’t come to set and didn’t pick up his phone. And that, to be honest, was just too ironic and truth speaking than what I had written. So we took that as a sign and re-created a totally new scene with the same meaning, in moments. People have had very different experiences with that last scene. I think it’s excruciating in some ways. And I couldn’t imagine anything more effective.
Many 20-somethings identify very strongly with this idea of making a unique, creative mark on the world. For you, that is filmmaking. Did you find that your own journey to discovering your passion was at all similar to the subjects of your film?
Well the actors are all pursuing life in different ways and for different reasons. What connects them, is their drive for those things. Their persistence and length to which they’re succeeding within their own odds. The three characters see something either in themselves or in the world that is self-generating and is fueling their own perpetual movement forward.
I do relate very much to that kind of focus and discipline, yes. But our dreams are also linked to these broader issues of access, of class, and of mentorship. I had the privilege of being engaged with art and artists growing up in New York, and that world greatly influenced what I saw possible for own myself. So sometimes the discovery of our passions is just as much about what we are exposed to at a young age as it is some innate pull within us.
As a rising filmmaker who is receiving positive recognition for her work, what advice would you give to 20-somethings who still find themselves in the beginning, vaguely defined stages of their own journeys?
I have about as many questions as I do answers to be honest. But maybe that’s something to try to stay with if possible–pushing yourself to the point where the unknown is presenting itself but you’re also absorbing and practicing your craft though the execution of your ideas. Maybe staying active, continuing to work, knowing what you’re afraid of in your work, and approaching it. Just like the characters in the film, their joy is also their obstacle. So be clear about what those things are and then go for it.
As a transplant from New York, how has living in the south influenced/changed you as a filmmaker?
I feel a great sense of creative freedom living here. But I also feel the history and the political climate to be oppressive and unchanged. I’m interested in that contradiction, I’m interested in exposing both sides of things and putting them in the same space. That seems to be a thread I’ve noticed at least. So the contrast that exists here on so many levels is a big part of what inspires my work and has kept me in one place for the past five years. Maybe that will change, I don’t know. I’ve been having dreams about Harlem lately.
What you are doing with “Below Dreams” transcends filmmaking and I think resonates with a core facet of our generation’s yearning: honesty. We are a generation that is tired of hypocrisy, tired of rhetoric, and tired of not being taken seriously. Your film is about more than simply telling a story. It is about providing an opportunity for unheard voices to be heard. Do you see that idea as the driving force behind you as a filmmaker? Or was that simply the driving force behind this particular project? Any ideas for what comes next?
Well, I think there’s a difference between what something is and what it can do. Really, I’m just an artist who was responding to my gut and focusing on subject matter that meant something to me. In doing that, maybe voices are heard and a dialogue is sparked. The driving force in making this was the possibility, in my own way, of creating justice–making an unseen world seen and proved. That was what was interesting to me with this project. The projects I’m working on right now have a different genesis and may, as a result, have a totally different effect.
Whether you realize it or not, there is an important conversation happening within our culture right now. With Below Dreams, Garrett Bradley is steering this conversation in a more honest direction.
Lucky for those of us here in the south, it won’t be necessary to book a ticket to New York to experience Below Dreams. There will be a sneak peek event as well as two public screenings of the film here in New Orleans along with some Q&A time with the filmmaker.
Winter Circle Productions Sneak Peek Event
Friday October 17th at 3:00 at The Joy Theater
Saturday, October 18th at 8:30 P.M. – The Joy Theater (Live Performance: Vockah Redu & Cru, Q&A with filmmakers)
Thursday, October 23rd at 3:30 P.M. – The Prytania Theater (Q&A with filmmakers)